Rob and Jim Brookes, owners of the Wheeling Nailers, applaud a goal by their team during the second period at WesBanco Arena in Wheeling, W.V., Friday. The team, like many other minor league hockey franchises, is struggling with ticket sales in a bad economy.AP PHOTO
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Leslie Mills’ family is full of hockey fans. In this season of recession, some members are going without.
Mills and her husband renewed their season tickets to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins games in the American Hockey League, but dropped an accompanying 12-game package used in previous years to take grandchildren.
“Two days ago my 9-year-old granddaughter said, ‘Grandma, how much are hockey tickets?”’ Mills recalled. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I want to save my money to go to a hockey game.”’
Mills owns up to feeling bad, but like other fans she has to cut back.
Attendance at minor league hockey games is down nationwide. The only exception is in the ECHL, which has seen a 2.2 percent increase in per-game attendance after losing four of its seven lowest-performing franchises since the end of last season.
Minor league officials refuse to attribute the decline to a decrease in fan interest. For decades many teams have remained in the same communities where kids follow the sport from an early age.
“We’re in hockey hotbeds,” International Hockey League commissioner Paul Pickard said. “I think (the attendance drop) has a lot to do with the economy.”
You don’t have to tell that to Michele Pettit. She and her husband have two children in college and a daughter at home. The family has attended Wilkes-Barre/Scranton games for eight seasons and last year locked into a five-year package. But the chance to save about $1,000 by dropping one of their three season tickets this winter sounded too good to pass up.
They’re still seeing their hockey — just not all together.
“We’re definitely interested, but I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Pettit said. “It got to be too much.”
Some owners are also looking at their commitments.
The Southern Professional Hockey League was down to six teams this season after the Jacksonville, Fla., franchise suspended operations last April. On Tuesday, the SPHL’s Richmond (Va.) Renegades announced they will suspend operations after this season.
Renegades president and general manager Allan B. Harvie Jr. said in a statement that fans can’t afford to come to games on a regular basis.
“This has been an extremely trying year for everybody financially,” he said. “The economy has driven a spike into the heart of the leisure-time market and fans have very hard choices to make with their money.
“It used to be fans would come at least once a week and now they’re lucky if they can afford to come once a month.”
Attendance was down 800 fans per game, some sponsors weren’t paying their bills and others went out of business, said Harvie, who didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment after the suspension was announced.
In Wheeling, the ECHL’s Nailers, the Penguins affiliate, were off to the best start in franchise history and hoped to pack their arena for a city Hockey Hall of Fame induction. Then came the turnout — just 2,961 fans.
Predictable, perhaps, for a franchise located in the heart of the layoff-decimated steel country. Still, co-owners Jim and Rob Brooks were disappointed.
“We want to do our best to keep some type of hockey team here in Wheeling because we love the community,” said Jim Brooks, who bought the team with his brother in 2003. “But we need the community’s help to do that.”
Linda Burge did her part. Despite losing her job a year ago, she bought Nailers season tickets for this season. She figured she’d be back at work by now. She isn’t, but doesn’t regret her decision.
“No, I wouldn’t give up my hockey,” she said.
As the season starts to winds down, interest in hockey traditionally picks up and organizers are counting on that cycle to kick in again.
Early in the season, the Nailers couldn’t compete with the Pittsburgh Steelers 60 miles to the northeast. After the Steelers finished their season by winning the Super Bowl, the Nailers exceeded their average attendance for three straight home games.
“We’re in a football town. We know our role,” said Craig Bommer, the Nailers’ director of corporate sales and marketing.
Being successful on the ice helps. From gift card giveaways to reduced-price hot dogs to free chocolate, the promotion-happy Hershey (Pa.) Bears of the AHL are in first place in their division and averaging nearly 900 more fans per game than any other minor league team.
When the economy nose-dived after the season began, some team promoters came up with new ideas.
It’s discount sodas and beers in Tulsa, Okla., where the Central Hockey League’s Oilers are averaging 1,200 more fans per game this season.
It’s free admission for active military members and giveaways of flat-screen TVs and a $150,000 house for the AHL’s last-place Rochester Americans, who are averaging 3,000 fewer fans per game after ending a 29-year affiliation with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
It was $5 admission to see the AHL’s Lowell (Mass.) Devils for children under 14 during the winter school break.
OK, so the Devils are on pace to finish worst in league attendance for the third straight season. But this season attendance is up 16 percent and the team set two single-game attendance records in January.
After the CHL’s Amarillo Gorillas lost all four of their major sponsors for this season, the team reduced group-ticket prices to $7 and lowered the minimum number of people required for group sales from 15 to 10.
Because group sales and sponsorships were sold months ago, the real test for the minors will come next season.
“I would much rather be selling $12 or $15 tickets as opposed to $75 to $100 tickets at the major league level over the next 12 months,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. “Families still need entertainment.”
Since the end of last season, the ECHL has lost four teams, including the Fresno, Calif., and Augusta, Ga., franchises in December, and another has suspended play while it looks for a permanent home. The league added a team this season in Ontario, Calif., and still plans to expand to 22 teams next fall with the addition of the Toledo (Ohio) Walleye.
“The teams that struggle in a good time, they’re going to struggle even more when the economy’s bad,” McKenna said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a couple more casualties. Hopefully we’re better positioned for growth in the future. Our league having lost some struggling teams may in fact make us stronger overall.”